linguistic overpopulation

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

english has too many pronouns. and that’s not even counting the silly made-up ones that seem to be floating around lately that i’m not going to focus on. if we look at just the subject-form pronouns in english, what do we have? first person, “i” and “we”. ok, that seems reasonable enough, one that’s only me and another for me and others. a good distinction to be able to make. second person we have “you”. perfect. third person? this is where things really go off the rails. “he”, “she”, “it”, “they”. four. what’s the difference? grammatically, “he”, “she” and “it” are singular while “they” is singular or plural depending on circumstance. so there’s no reason to have the first three because they only do the same job “they” already does. but this causes a huge problem. “they”, even when used in singular form, takes plural verbs, which is extremely confusing to english-speakers even if they’re natives. even more confusing to learners, i assure you, as there’s no reason for it that seems apparent in the modern language.

why does “they” take plural verb forms? actually, they’re not plural forms at all and that’s why this becomes so strange. english doesn’t differentiate between singular and plural the way you might think. it’s a very fluid scale that has transformed into something fairly rigid only in the last century or so. if you look at old writing, you will find that when a speaker is being respectful (either of self or others) they use what has become the plural form and when they are being less formal they use what’s now the singular. there are reasons for this and we could talk about the “subjunctive” function plural verbs exercised in older forms of english but the easiest way to think about it is that the “modern english plural” is derived from the respectful, formal version and the “modern english singular” is derived from the more informal version. because “they” was focused on others and being respectful of others is often required in polite society it became more common to use the formal version compared to when talking about self or a specific other in everyday conversation. these connections became so strong they transformed into a differentiation between singular and plural rather than just formal and informal.

that completely aside, there’s another argument that continues to rage about whether “they” can even be singular. it shouldn’t be an argument. “they” was originally a singular pronoun with no plural function at all. there was another plural pronoun – in fact, there were several other singular ones and a variety of plural ones. “they” didn’t get its plural function until considerably later in the history of the english language. but none of that really matters. it definitely functions as either today and even the dictionary agrees. not that it ever really disagreed but people can get very focused on meaningless distinctions.

which is why i think we should leave these historical problems where they belong – in the past. english doesn’t need all these pronouns and we could very easily simplify it by eliminating the extra ones but i think that’s likely to lead to resistance and idiosyncratic whining, especially in native-speakers. so i think there’s a better solution that functions a bit more easily and streamlines the language a bit. we replace the existing pronouns with some that are simplified and others that are simply respelled. simply, english has too many pronouns so let’s add another. and remove a few.

i don’t think we need to change the first-person pronouns. “i” is simple. it’s a single letter and can’t really be any simpler than it already is. we can talk about object-form versions in a moment but let’s just focus on the subjects and assume this one is good. “we” could be improved but it wouldn’t really change anything meaningful and everyone likes it the way it is. there’s no real debate about “we” so it’s probably best to leave it that way.

the second-person pronoun is likely ok but we might as well look at it while we’re fixing pronoun problems. there’s no reason for it to have all those extra letters. two-thirds of its letters are silent. so let’s just eliminate them and spell it the way it sounds to make things easier without changing how the language is spoken at all.

so we have three pronouns – “i”, “we”, “u”. all fairly straightforward and relatively-uncontroversial so far. and this is where things get crazy and people start lighting things on fire.

let’s just eliminate all the existing third-person pronouns. they’re either unhelpful (“he”, “she”) or debated (“it”, “they”). think there’s no debate about “it”? believe me. “it” is my preferred standard pronoun. try to get people in our current age to call you “it” and everyone starts whining about disrespect and how “difficult” it is. difficult to use a two-letter word. i don’t know what’s wrong with these people. but it causes incredible problems and people have so much emotion trapped in these two words it’s better to simply discard them. which leaves us a small void. we now have to have a third-person pronoun and we’ve deleted all the existing ones. and we want it to be simple and completely without emotional baggage or history yet easy to remember.

our first and second-person pronouns are now single-letters (“we” is a single vowel-sound gloss so that’s close enough, just a strange idiosyncrasy of the awkward english spelling system) so it’s likely best to mirror that for the third-person. i suggest “e”. “he”, “she” and “they” already have that letter in them so it even looks similar and streamlines the shift in reading for those already used to text in the language. this pronoun would take singular verbs the same as “it” currently does but allow singular or plural meanings, eliminating the need for the plural verbs, another simplification english desperately needs.

now let’s take a look at object-form pronouns. there are lots of them. “me”, “us”, “him”, “her”, etc. there’s simply no need. english has strict word-order to determine subject and object. if i say “james gave linda the ball”, you know who had the ball at first and who has it now. so we don’t need different pronoun forms to tell us these things because we don’t modify the names they are replacing – we used to and some languages still do but it’s unnecessary in a language with word-order like english. so we can eliminate all the object-form versions (and all the reflexive versions like “itself” and “themselves” because they can all be simplified to “self”) and no meaning is lost.

“i gave jean the paper” or “jean gave i the paper” are easily-comprehensible so why complicate it by adding all these extra words?

english drastically requires simplification in so many ways – verbs, number, gender, spelling, etc. but the simplest of these is probably what i’ve just suggested. simplify english pronouns and at least we eliminate some needless complexity with minimal effort. thanks for exploring this idea with me today…

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